The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Home to hope, heartbreak

The train brought along with it a strong smell of formaldehyde and a trail of water from the ice that had melted by the time it reached Howrah.

As the coaches chugged in, the crowd surged forward, checking which one contained what they were looking for. At 4.30 pm on Tuesday, the train finally screeched to a halt, bringing to an end a journey shared by the living and the dead.

Howrah station looked — and felt — very different on Wednesday. The electronic timetable, instead of announcing the names of trains leaving the station, announced those who had taken the 2301 Up Rajdhani Express to their death on Monday.

Platform no. 21, instead of playing host to some routine long-distance down trains, received a ‘Relatives' Special’ with no number. And the train itself (pulled along by engine no. 23973), brought to Howrah 17 body bags and a few walking wounded (picture on Page 16).

Anxiety mingled with anger as family and friends waited and waited, for word of those they had lost and those they were longing to see. Complaints against the “callousness” of the railway authorities swelled by the hour.

Rajdhani Express pantry staff T.K. Datta had his name spelt in three different ways in an as many death-lists. “The first was the right spelling, the second carried P.K. and the third read B.K.,” said his Baguiati neighbour Subhajit Banerjee. “Can't officials understand what a family of old parents, a wife and a child goes through'”

The wait for the special train began on Wednesday morning, with people pouring in much before the expected arrival time. No one was willing to take a chance.

The countdown to the train touchdown began around 2 pm, with the announcement that it would arrive “shortly” at platform no. 21. This sparked a mad rush to the New Complex. The train finally arrived 150 minutes later, after several announcements of it arriving “shortly”.

The bodies, trussed up in blue polythene, were brought down and taken to the waiting cots and coffins. A few minutes spent in the compartments-turned-jumbo-sized tombs revealed that the train had arrived not a moment too soon. Most of the ice, used to preserve the bodies of Dulal Palchaudhuri and Dulal Das, both railway staff, in coach no. 4141AB, had melted and the body of Baliram Chaudhuri, a pantry-car staff, had bloated beyond recognition.

“When he (Baliram) left home, I could have lifted him,” said son Vinod. “Today, 10 people found it difficult to help me lift him.” Vinod accompanied his father home on his last train ride, after having rushed to Gaya on Tuesday.

Baliram had lived to see his son — and talk to him — before breathing his last, late on Tuesday. “Everyone in the family thought I was just bringing back an injured man,” sighed the son.

The arrival of the train was not enough to take railway officials out of the line of fire. One complaint was that the railways had discriminated even in death — 11 of 17 bodies that arrived on Tuesday evening belonged to railway employees. So, the wait at Howrah — for hope and heartbreak — goes on.

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